Freedom of Religion or Freedom from Religion?

by David Glass

There’s a curious tension in attitudes towards religion in modern society. Freedom of religion is a well-established human right and few people in Western democracies, whether religious or not, would wish to deny it. At the same, the view that religion should play little or no role in public life is very common. In fact, many people hold both views, advocating a freedom of religion in terms of personal belief and a freedom from religion in terms of public life and debate. In a recent article, I drew on some of the ideas of the philosopher Roger Trigg in his book Religion in Public Life: Must Faith Be Privatized (Oxford University Press, 2007) in my discussion of Human Rights without God? Here I pick up on some more of his views on this related topic.

Why think that religion should be excluded from public debate? Trigg discusses the views of philosophers such as John Rawls, Robert Audi and Richard Rorty on this matter. Rawls, for example, emphasizes the need for what he calls public justification of beliefs, which is roughly that beliefs need to be justified in a way that is acceptable to everyone. The focus is on reaching agreement and so we need to find approaches that we can agree upon to resolve differences. In this context, religion is often contrasted with science: it is claimed that science can resolve differences whereas religion does just the opposite. Rorty claims that religion becomes a ‘conversation-stopper’ because any particular religious viewpoint is only relevant to people in a particular religious community and so is of no use in public debate.

Against this, Trigg argues that Rorty plays down the role of disagreement in science. Scientific knowledge is at best partial and must be open to challenge and revision. Of course, there is scientific agreement on many issues, but disagreement is also prevalent, whether it is competing models in cosmology, explanations for the extinction of the dinosaurs, or causes of a given disease. This in no way diminishes science. Trigg believes that science gets at the truth about what the world is like, but he also emphasizes that ‘disagreement is the life-blood of science, and the bed-rock of democracy’ (p. 203). It is of course true, that any relevant scientific knowledge (or other type of knowledge) should be brought to bear on the topics of public concern and political debate, but in most cases science cannot resolve disagreements about what should be done. On debates about abortion, for example, disagreement mostly arises from diverging moral, not scientific, views…

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Freedom of Religion or Freedom from Religion? – Saints and Sceptics